Hanley aiming to keep Galway heads held high
For the first time in three years Finian Hanley felt he could return to Galway on the night of a championship match with his head held high.
Galway's victory over Roscommon in the opening round of the Connacht championship had been their first of any consequence in almost three years since routinely overcoming Sligo in a provincial semi-final. It was time to open the shoulders and breathe again.
The intervening period had been hard on the team. Hanley described it as a cloud that just wouldn't lift as the confidence just drained out of them.
In seven championship games since Sligo in late June 2009, their only success had been in New York in Joe Kernan's first championship match. And even that was an almighty struggle.
For Hanley, it wasn't so much the defeats but the repetitious nature of them. Each one, with the exception of their dismal effort against Mayo in last year's Connacht semi-final, by a point. Each one thieved from them at the death.
Think Peadar Gardiner's late winner for Mayo in 2009, Donegal's late surge in Markievicz Park a week later, Colm McGee for Sligo and Ciaran Lyng for Wexford in 2010 -- all reversals by the minimum margin underlining a mental frailty that Hanley acknowledges had crept into their collective system and wouldn't abate.
Three years on, Hanley charts the malaise back to the evening at Markievicz Park when they had Donegal at arm's length until the last 10 minutes. Karl Lacey whipped a ball from Michael Meehan's grasp and the tide turned in that moment.
"There was a cloud over the team there for a while. We were going through a bad phase. We were losing some games we were expected to win," he said.
"We lost a lot of games by a point as well. There was a mental fragility there where we weren't able to close out a game.
"It goes back to Donegal in '09 where we were three points up going down the last few minutes but lost by a point. There was that fragility there where we could have been taken at any time.
"We hadn't won a game in two or three years. There was no confidence in the team. Boys were afraid to play. Everyone was playing inside themselves."
An All-Ireland-winning manager couldn't halt the slide, nor could a coach who created the most parsimonious defence in the 2008 championship with Westmeath.
In fact, things probably got progressively worse in those years and there was little either Kernan or Tomas O Flatharta could do about it. Galway were just in a rut.
So what has changed it? Was it as simple as Alan Mulholland's arrival as manager?
"People always talk about the footballers in Galway but we weren't getting the best out of everyone.
"You need a lot of luck. We had a lot of injuries in 2010 (predominantly to Meehan). Obviously we were a couple of points up against Wexford in injury-time and still lost.
"I just don't think the players saw out the matches at the time but a win can do everything for confidence.
"We're playing a style of football that is suiting everyone. Boys are just enjoying it, the cloud is lifting somewhat. It's a monkey off the back that we hadn't won a game as well.
"The preparation for the Roscommon game was to get the win and we did that by playing particularly well so coming home on Sunday evening was enjoyable to get a pat on the back instead of the hard luck stories."
Hanley has retained the captaincy in Mulholland's first year, a role he has gravitated easily towards over the years.
In 2011 he was one of three nominated for the position by O Flatharta but within weeks one co-captain, Kieran Fitzgerald, had left the panel while the other, Meehan, struggled with the ankle injury that still threatens his career.
Hanley struggled with O Flatharta's attempt to take him out of his comfort zone and transform him into a midfielder during last year's league, an experiment that came to a shuddering halt after the Mayo defeat in Castlebar.
Restored to full-back for the qualifier defeat to Meath two weeks later, Hanley (below) was arguably Galway's best player on the night.
"Institutionalised, I think is the word. You get upset when you're let out (from full-back). Last year I went to midfield. Myself and Joe (Bergin) were there for the league, doing okay.
"Obviously against Mayo it was terrible. We played terrible and then I was moved back to full-back against Meath.
"I've played all my life at full-back with the club as well. That's what you're used to. I don't think it's going to change anytime soon again."